BERNARD KOPS: how bagels saved me from suicide

Playwright Bernard Kops talks with Ham&High reporter Katie Davies about the highs and lows of drug addiction, fame on the stage, and how bagels saved his life. NOT many people can make the claim that bagels saved their life, but Bernard Kops – the adopti

Playwright Bernard Kops talks with Ham&High reporter Katie Davies about the highs and lows of drug addiction, fame on the stage, and how bagels saved his life.

NOT many people can make the claim that bagels saved their life, but Bernard Kops - the adoptive playwright son of West Hampstead who left his childhood heart in the East End - can and does.

"I remember feeling I'd had enough," he says thoughtfully, making a frown. "In the middle of the night, I opened the window and crawled out. My wife Erica tried to pull me back.

"I said this is it. I went towards Kilburn and Maida Vale where there was this great big Victorian wall and I thought I would drive at incredible speed towards it.

"So I got there and started to speed up. As I did, I had a strange logic which came to me.

"It said, 'Yes, you're allowed to kill yourself but then this deed will hang over your children and your wife. You're entitled to take your own life but not that of others.'

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"I thought it's either death or bagels - so I drove to Vallance Road [Bethnal Green] and went home with hot bagels.

"It was one of the turning points of my life."

Kops' work is filled with reference to his childhood as one of the thousands of Jewish immigrants living in the impoverished East End in the 1920s and 30s.

From his debut play, Hamlet Of Stepney Green, and his latest, Whitechapel Dreams, the location always seems to play a part.

He has been a long-term campaigner for libraries in the east, where he educated himself gorging on the poems of Eliot, and is also working to support emerging artistic talent among its now large Bangladeshi community.

But nothing proves the ongoing nature of his allegiance more than the fact it was the food of home that pulled him back from the brink of his drug addict's suicide.

The image of him then - an amphetamine addict getting high in the bars of Soho - couldn't be further from the 82-year-old great-grandfather who now sits in his favourite local haunt The Garden Cafe in Swiss Cottage.

The playwright, in trademark bohemian poet garb of black-rimmed spectacles, woollen black cap, polo neck jumper and dark trousers looks at home, even though conspicuous, in his surroundings where every weekend he gathers with more than a dozen of the Kops clan.

How he got into the slippery slope of addiction was no doubt accelerated if not caused by his sudden thrust into the spotlight.

Leaving school at the age of 13, a career which was meant to be limited to running a bookstall at Cambridge Circus and spending time with relatives who formed a mini army of black cab drivers, Kops was never meant to become a famous playwright, particularly in a time when the stage was a middle-class preoccupation.

But in another twist of fate, Kops was not only directed to the stage but to becoming one of the founding fathers of a dramatic revolution.

"I was writing in a journal on the stall and a man came and asked to look at it," he explains. "I wasn't after success, or agents, or getting work produced - I wasn't into any of that. I just wanted to write. Even now, if I couldn't get another book out or play put on, I would still have to write.

"He took it away and asked if he could send it to a publisher.

"Then I got a letter from someone I'd never heard of but it turned out he was one of the most famous men in literature - Leonard Woolf.

"He asked if I was going to finish it because he wanted to publish it. But I didn't bother and put the manuscript away."

But the boost, which told Kops he could make it, meant other works soon did reach the public and when his plays emerged, theatre was ripe for change.

"Until then, it was what I called the theatre of reassurance - people went to the theatre to have a nice night and writers were writing stuff that made you feel good and go away content. But then they were overtaken," he says.

"We were writing about our streets, homes, families, nightmares and dreams and we started bringing that to the theatre.

"It was very hard to find actors who could understand the emotional wavelength. But then they started to come to the theatre from the streets and brought all their anguish with them."

If the vertigo from being at the crest of his wave caused Kops' addiction, the irony is that hidden in his work was always the optimism that would eventually help him beat it.

As he himself says: "My work is a mixture of fear and truth, but still, the optimism.

"It's amazing how things turn out. When you're slapped in the face, you've gone through terrible times, life gets to its lowest ebb, you can come back up.

"I kept going deeper and deeper down and I thought I can't start to come back up until I've gone so far down I can kick against the bottom. After that, there was still a way to go. But from then to now I've never taken anything stronger than black coffee."

These sudden changes in fortune fascinate Kops - from his desire for bagels, to what compelled him to go downstairs in a Soho bar, leading to him meeting his beloved wife, to the fact his family were spared the Holocaust because his father couldn't raise the money to take them home to Holland.

Though he isn't religious, he says his love for how fortunes can turn around comes from his mother who always said: "God is good, everything will turn out OK."

"Apart from my fear and anxiety in my breakdown, I always had that drive," he muses. "I think it's an essentially Jewish attitude - while I am here I must dance."

And of course - the desire to eat bagels.

Bernard Kops is performing a reading of his play Whitechapel Dreams at New End Theatre in December in conjunction with the Jewish Community Centre for London. Tickets are £5 for the show which starts at 7.30pm on Sunday December 7. To book, call 0870 033 2733 or visit